Commentary Magazine


Lost Victory, by William Colby

The Bureaucrat & the War

Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen Year Involvement in Vietnam.
by William Colby
with James Mccargar. Contemporary Books. 438 pp. $22.95.

William Colby, director of Central Intelligence (1973-75), and perhaps the highest ranking American with the longest record of service in and about Vietnam (1959-75), has written “my contribution to the effort to achieve understanding . . . of the vital lessons to be drawn from the suffering and agony of the Second Vietnam War.”

Like Peter Braestrup’s Big Story (how the American media turned the U.S. victory at Tet 1968 into a strategic disaster) and Harry Summers’s analysis of how U.S. military superiority was wasted, Colby’s new book shows that the U.S. won a victory of another kind but threw it away. The victory Colby is talking about was in the political struggle for control of South Vietnam. And indeed he shows convincingly enough that by about 1972 that struggle was over. The Communists had failed in their own chosen method of guerrilla warfare both because the South Vietnamese and the Americans had done a lot of things right and because the 1968 Tet offensive had proved disastrous to the Vietcong. Life for nearly all South Vietnamese civilians had become normal and secure. Colby drives home the point by recounting that on the Tet holiday of 1972 he was able to take an unescorted, carefree motorcycle ride across the Mekong Delta.

Three years later, on April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops in Soviet tanks (not barefoot Southern guerrillas) smashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. The U.S. victory in North Vietnam’s original style of warfare had become irrelevant. North Vietnam had been able to switch its efforts to a conventional war which the U.S. had stopped fighting, or even supporting.

How did this come to be? While Braestrup and Summers explain rather well how their respective victories were turned to disaster, Colby does not do the same for his.

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Colby recounts the familiar story. Beginning about 1961, the U.S. government set up a conventional military shield behind which South Vietnam established a working society. By 1972, South Vietnam had its own military shield, no more dependent on the U.S. than North Vietnam was dependent on the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1972, with the U.S. forces having withdrawn from ground combat, the government of South Vietnam successfully repelled a full-scale invasion from the North. The South Vietnamese people supported their government. There was no subversion in the rear, and the refugees from the fighting went exclusively southward. But later that year the U.S. government pulled the rug out. It coerced South Vietnam to accept a “peace” agreement that legitimized the North Vietnamese army’s presence on its soil. The agreement also delegitimized any attempt to stop North Vietnamese preparations for a final assault, and plainly foreshadowed the total withdrawal of U.S. support. After all, if there had been a peace agreement, why continue to fuel a war? And indeed, both South Vietnam’s supplies and its morale dried up. When the final blow came, the South Vietnamese government was fighting (in the words of a North Vietnamese general) “a poor man’s war” against a superb Soviet-supplied military machine.

Colby, however, having explained in detail the motives and judgments of various U.S. government officials regarding the political development of South Vietnam, does not begin to explain the thoughts in the minds of those same officials with regard to the scuttling of South Vietnam. In sum, then, he fails to deliver on his larger promise to “achieve understanding of the vital lessons.”

The book’s substantive shortcomings are related to its literary ones: it rambles and repeats itself. In general, both style and substance express the outlook of a bureaucrat—a man whose vision of a situation is circumscribed by particular programs, by his own career, by the primacy of the process through which the will of superiors translates into the acts of subordinates and, not least, by a particular kind of language.

Colby was a good bureaucrat. He believed in and rigorously obeyed the five Presidents he served re Vietnam. He also believed in the cause of South Vietnam’s independence, and especially in the role he was assigned to play in the struggle to turn it into a politically viable nation. His engagé background in domestic politics, and as one of the CIA’s political-action officers, gave him a sophisticated understanding of what actually makes political movements and governments viable or unviable. He therefore appreciated that Ngo Dinh Diem had earned his position as South Vietnam’s political leader (1954-63), and that none of his detractors, Vietnamese or American, had the knowledge, the skill, or the drive to do better by that country than Diem was doing. Colby worked with Diem and his brother Nhu to teach Vietnamese villagers how to defend themselves. Together they believed that these islands of organized safety would merge like spots of oil on a blotter.

Hence Colby fought hard to dissuade the U.S. government from fomenting the 1963 coup that killed Diem—an event which Ho Chi Minh is said to have called “a gift from heaven.” But when the ill-thought-out orders came, Colby saluted and helped to accomplish what he knew would be both wrong and erroneous. Four years later, Colby was pleased to work the same oil-spot strategy with President Nguyen Van Thieu, who also thought Diem had done a good job.

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The bulk of the book is a reiteration of the arguments Colby made within the U.S. government from the 50’s to the 70’s for concentrating on the strategy of extending effective government and citizen self-defense throughout South Vietnam.

The most famous, and misunderstood, part of the Colby strategy was the Phoenix program. It consisted of pooling all allied intelligence resources to identify the Communist cadres throughout Vietnam. Once identified, they were either to be encouraged to switch sides or to be arrested, interrogated, and punished. Many were killed resisting arrest. The Phoenix program worked. By 1971 most of the Communist cadres who had taxed, conscripted, terrorized, and propagandized the South Vietnamese countryside were either in jail, in exile, or dead.

Colby defends Phoenix as “police work,” as a process designed to be as objective as possible, and as being very much within the traditional rules of land warfare. Fair enough. But he misses the chance to discuss the role—both moral and practical—of the killing done under Phoenix, or indeed of any and all killing in warfare.

The only justifiable purpose of such killing, both from the standpoint of military efficiency and of morality, is to end the war and to secure those goods for which the war is being fought. Hence it is both most efficient and morally most justifiable to concentrate on those who most embody the enemy’s purpose in the war, and who have the greatest role in the enemy’s war effort. Colby could have argued, but did not, that targeting people reasonably suspected of being part of the Vietcong infrastructure was far more defensible in every way than shooting at rank-and-file Vietcong in battle. In opposition to this argument, some American officials sanctioned the killing not just of enemy draftees, but also of their families at home, while abhorring the killing of enemy officials, which they mindlessly labeled “assassination.” Colby could have attacked this attitude not as an excess of moral refinement but as a moral perversion with serious practical consequences. Yet neither in his congressional testimony in the 1970’s nor in his book did he ask: “Whom would you have had us, kill—the draftee or the drafter?” Perhaps the reason he did not is that the logic of that question leads directly to others: “Why not win the war by obliterating the politburo of North Vietnam, or bombing the Red River dikes?” And if we were unwilling to do what was necessary to win, what were we doing?

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Colby’s explanation of why the U.S. government threw away the victory that his own political warriors had won is that the antiwar movement triumphed in the battle for public opinion, “the democratic process worked,” and the officials in power in Washington followed suit. In the end, Colby blames the American people, who, he says, were manipulated by the media.

This sort of explanation is dear to Washingtonians, especially conservatives. The U.S. government does something dumb or dishonorable. Never inquire into the thoughts of those who did it, or blame them. Wistfully say that disaster is the price that we must pay for being a democracy. When President Carter cancels the neutron bomb, or when President Reagan winds up accepting one-fourth the number of MX missiles that President Carter had proposed, public opinion must be responsible—even though most Americans did not endorse, much less urge their leaders to take, these actions.

In the case of Vietnam, as one may see in John E. Mueller’s War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, the polls lagged behind U.S. government policy as it moved inexorably to abandon its ally. Indeed, every time a U.S. President did something aggressive in Vietnam the polls rose. They fell again as U.S. leaders made clear that their highest aspiration was to get us out. Moreover, the antiwar movement lost the two polls that counted the most, the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972. The American people voted for the “tough” candidate, who said that saving South Vietnam was essential to the security of America, and who, like his predecessor and successor, vowed to do it. The government bowed, all right. But not to majority opinion.

Colby says that Presidents Nixon and Ford, like Johnson before them, and their chief assistants, did the best that anyone could have done to save Vietnam, but were overwhelmed. This is nonsense. As is clear from the book itself, the process of abandonment was driven by high-level incompetence, political cowardice, and deference to the few who comprised the antiwar movement over the many voters.

Consider incompetence. Colby notes—to cite only one example—that in December 1972, President Nixon finally discovered the old military truth that “escalating by increment rather than by overpowering force would not work,” and wished he had tried overpowering force earlier.

Consider political cowardice. According to Colby, Congress is not only the villain of the piece but the deus ex machina as well. Yet Colby’s only piece of evidence for the proposition that Congress forced the President’s hand is that it passed the War Powers Act over President Nixon’s veto. Because of this Act, Colby says, President Ford could not order U.S. naval and air forces to help stem North Vietnam’s final assault in April 1975. But the War Powers Act only requires that the President submit a report to Congress 60 days after initiating a military action. After 60 days of serious B-52 raids there would have been no more North Vietnamese army.

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Why was so much deference paid by our leaders to the antiwar movement? Why, from the very first, did Lyndon Johnson refuse to call the war by its name, thereby failing to put everyone on notice that the antiwar movement was an activity lethal to other Americans? Why did he, and his successors, continue to praise the motives of those in the antiwar movement, thereby legitimizing them even as they worked to delegitimize the country? Why did Lyndon Johnson, in March 1968, once he had given up any thought of winning the war, not tell the American people about the direction in which he had turned and where it would lead? If he did not have it in him to bear the responsibility for choosing either victory or defeat, why did he not, as suggested by Max Ascoli, then editor of the old-line liberal magazine the Reporter, resign and leave this responsibility clearly to his successor? Why did Presidents Nixon and Ford persist in this deference even unto the disaster itself?

It is significant that a book by a man who sat in the highest councils of government sheds no light at all on these absolutely crucial questions.

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